Joshua trees in the Mojave Desert
Solar energy has been enjoying its day in the sun with massive federal subsidies, but the energy taken from sunlight also has a dark side. Building these plants in the American West destroys large swathes of the desert ecosystem. Cacti must be mowed down and local wildlife displaced to make room for the giant mirrors that will essentially carpet the desert. The LA Times has a great feature on the Ivanpah project in the Mojave that began construction in October 2010.
Far from an empty stretch of sand, the Mojave supports diverse wildlife. No one knows exactly how the new solar power plant will affect the tortoises, eagles, and Joshua trees that currently inhabit the area. Is it okay to sacrifice the desert in the fight against larger climate change? The situation has put environmental groups in a bind, as Times reporter Julie Cart explains:
The national office of the Sierra Club has had to quash local chapters’ opposition to some solar projects, sending out a 42-page directive making it clear that the club’s national policy goals superseded the objections of a local group. Animosity bubbled over after a local Southern California chapter was told to refrain from opposing solar projects.
With their majestic peaks, imposing canyons, and lofty designation, America’s national parks seem inviolate, places of natural grandeur far from the vagaries of money or politics. But over the years, 26 sites have lost their national park status. In a slideshow at National Geographic, Brian Handwerk explores why.
A few parks were less-than-ideal candidates to begin with (the National Park Service running the Kennedy Center? huh?). But more often than not, the decision to jettison a park from the list came down to economics: Several parks, like Montana’s Lewis and Clark Caverns, above, were too remote to attract enough visitors; the caverns are now part of the state’s park system. Other ex-parks, however, are no longer open to the public: a Palm Beach retreat that proved too expensive for the government to maintain was bought by Donald Trump—and made into a swanky, exclusive club.
Read the rest at National Geographic.
Image courtesy of Montana State Parks
“Massive acoustic trauma.” It sounds like an ’80s metal band, but according to scientists at the Technical University of Catalonia in Spain, it’s what happens to squid and other cephalopods when they are exposed to sounds similar to boat noise. After exposing 87 cephalopods to low-volume, low-frequency noises for two hours, the researchers found damaged nerves, lesions, and other trauma in the creatures’ hearing organs. There are some holes in the team’s methods (see below), but if the findings hold, squid will be added to the long list of marine animals (including whales, dolphins, and crustaceans) endangered by human-made noise in the oceans.
What’s the News: President Obama gave a major address outlining his plan for U.S. energy security yesterday. His major goal is quite ambitious: to cut American oil imports by one-third by 2025. And towards that goal, he listed a number of initiatives that many news organizations see as a rehashing of old ideas, however good they might be. According to The Economist, “it is hard to see his recycled list of proposals as anything more than a reassurance to the environmentally minded, and to Americans fretting about rising fuel prices, that the president feels their pain.”
The drastic changes in the Arctic wrought by global warming aren’t just threatening that icon of climate change the polar bear, they’re also jeopardizing the health of other species–like the Pacific walrus. Environmentalists petitioned the federal government years ago to add the walrus to the endangered species list, but progress on the case has been slow. Now, in a decision that has angered both activists and oil drillers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided that even though our be-blubbered friends deserve recognition under the Endangered Species Act, there are just too many other endangered animals to take care of first.
Specifically, the organization’s spokesman, Bruce Woods, said that protecting walruses was advised but “precluded.” That’s because other animals, like polar bears and certain species of sea birds, are more imperiled in this world of receding ice. The agency also said it’s hampered by lack of firm data on walrus population numbers.
“The main thing is that, compared to the polar bears, there are a lot of them,” Woods said of the Pacific walrus, adding that no baseline population count for the walrus exists…. “We don’t have any evidence of declines,” even if declines are suspected, he said. [Reuters]
The Agency’s decision has raised the ire of many.
For several years now, the Environmental Protection Agency has been lurching toward enacting rules to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Yesterday, the first steps of the EPA’s new rules went into effect.
The new regulations come in two parts, the first of which limits the emissions allowed by new cars and light trucks.
The rules apply to 2012 model vehicles, which can be sold starting Sunday. They must now follow toughened CAFE fuel efficiency standards laid out in May. With industry on board—though there’s some grumbling—these steps are relatively uncontroversial. [ScienceNOW]
The second and more contentious part of EPA’s action are new rules for power plants, factories, and refineries. Beginning yesterday (January 2), any new plant that will emit more than 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide (or the equivalent) annually will need an EPA permit, as will existing plants that install new capacity that emits 75,000 tons or more. The regulations for all existing plants will follow this July, when those that emit the equivalent of 100,000 annual tons will need permits to do so.
Cap-and-trade is coming to California. The market-based system intended to cut greenhouse gas emissions is the key part of the Golden State’s effort, set into law four years ago, to cut its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Yesterday the California Air Resources Board finally approved the complex set of rules, which will go into effect in 2012.
Power plants, refineries and other industrial facilities that emit carbon dioxide and can’t cut their emissions by the required amount will be able to obtain pollution allowances from the state or buy them from other emitters with excess allowances. [Wall Street Journal]
Cap-and-trade is widespread in Europe, but California‘s plan would be the first large-scale, legally mandated version of this idea to get going in the United States.
“We’re inventing this,” said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the state’s air quality board. “There is still going to be quite a bit of action needed before it becomes operational.” She said California is trying to “fill the vacuum created by the failure of Congress to pass any kind of climate or energy legislation for many years now.” [USA Today]
Polar bears, the poster-species for climate change, have been the subject of reports about new or growing threats in 2010: One story noted that the warming Arctic is pushing grizzlies north into polar bear territory, while another questioned whether polar bears can change their diet as their icy habitat melts. But the journal Nature this week brought an antidote to all that doom and gloom. A study modeling the Arctic climate suggests that it’s still not too late to protect the polar bear habitat, and therefore save the polar bear. The world just needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
The question is one of tipping points: Is the total demise of the Arctic summer sea ice already inevitable, or could a slowing of emissions also slow down the ice loss?
The dramatic retreat of Arctic sea ice in the summer of 2007 prompted some researchers to warn that the system may have reached a tipping point that would lead to the disappearance of summer sea ice within the next several decades, regardless of actions humans took to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. That concern, in turn, helped elevate the polar bear to climate-icon status and reportedly fed into then-President George W. Bush’s decision in 2008 to list the bear as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The new study, however, finds no “tipping point” now or in this century in Arctic sea-ice decline, but rather a relatively steady fall-off in ice extent as average temperatures increase. [Christian Science Monitor]
Study author Steven Amstrup, formerly of the U.S. Geological Survey and now at Polar Bears International, modeled five different scenarios for greenhouse emissions in the future. He saw a linear relationship between rising temperatures brought on by those emissions and the retreat of Arctic ice. What he didn’t see was a sharp sudden drop, a point at which crossing some temperature boundary led to an irrevocable disappearance of the ice that would doom the bears.
When the Cancun Climate Summit began, we mentioned the modest goals most nations set going in (especially in the wake of 2009′s messy Copenhagen meeting). Indeed, the United Nations climate meeting in Mexico didn’t shoot for the stars in terms of emissions reductions, but the nations assembled at least agreed to a few limited proposals and set the stage for next year.
The agreement is not a legally binding one, but it includes:
1. The package known as the Cancún Agreements gives the more than 190 countries participating in the conference another year to decide whether to extend the frayed Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement that requires most wealthy nations to trim their emissions while providing assistance to developing countries to pursue a cleaner energy future. [The New York Times]
Kyoto’s targets were for the year 2012. The question for the 2011 meeting in South Africa, then, will be whether it’s possible to get everyone on board with a Kyoto extension or some other emissions reduction agreement. (Cancun did bring one promising sign, as the nations agreed in principle to allow outside inspection to check the validity of their emissions cuts.)
2. It includes a scheme to provide financial support for countries to preserve their forests, in a bid to combat deforestation which accounts for almost a fifth of global annual emissions, and makes progress on how countries’ actions are going to be monitored and verified. [The Independent]
Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear what could be the most important environmental case it will decide this year: Huge power companies like Xcel Energy and Duke Energy are appealing a ruling by an appeals court that they can be sued under public nuisance law. If that ruling is confirmed at the highest level, it could open the door to a flood of lawsuits claiming the power companies’ greenhouse gas emissions constitute a nuisance to the general public.
This one has been a long time coming. The case, brought by eight states including New York and California plus some environmental groups, dates back to 2004. First a federal judge threw out the states’ claim, essentially saying that emissions should be dealt with in legislative bodies, not courtrooms. Then the appeals court reversed that ruling, recognizing the eight states’ claim that these emissions contribute to global warming and could be considered under public nuisance law, prompting the power companies to balk and appeal.
In their appeal, the companies argue that the states lacked the legal right, or standing, to sue because they can’t show that they were harmed by anything the utilities did or that they would benefit from a ruling against the power companies. “A court is not a regulator and may not enter relief against a particular defendant where the plaintiff’s injury is not traceable to that defendant and where relief against the defendant would not redress that injury,” the companies argued. [Bloomberg]